Left And Right Have Nothing In Common On NAFTA

| Strategize!

Above photo: Peoples World/flickr

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Contrary to popular belief.

Washington, DC – Today, the fourth round of renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are taking place in Washington, DC. Protests are planned at multiple locations around DC, including a petition delivery of over 360,000 signatures to Congress demanding the elimination of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). United under the threat from continually expanding corporate power, the fight against NAFTA has brought together a cross-section of social movements, including unions, community groups, land reform movements, environmentalists, food safety groups, and internet rights organizations.

NAFTA, in effect since 1994, is an agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico. There has been much written about the original deal that need not be repeated here, but suffice it to say that local economies have been eviscerated under a deal that expands the rights of corporate profits at the expense of working people in all three countries. Renegotiations of NAFTA began this past August, with each session rotating to take place in each of the three member countries.

Today’s negotiations are largely focused on the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which allows corporations to sue local governments in secret tribunals. What this translates to is taxpayers literally paying corporations for any unrealized profits due to such basic protections as clean water ordinances or other common sense legislation. Over the years, lawsuits brought by corporations against governments have forced taxpayers to pay billions of dollars to these corporations.

While most of these cases have been settled with little public scrutiny, the ISDS has had some notable moments in the spotlight, such as when UPS sued Canada for $156 million due to unfair competition from the Canadian Post Office, or John Oliver’s memorable 2015 segment critiquing the absurdity of the ISDS system.

President Trump’s presidential campaign made much fanfare over his opposition to free trade, and the media largely accepted the premise that his opposition to free trade would logically result in more jobs and better working conditions for US workers. Furthermore, the reporting on free trade often conflated Trump’s position with the leftist position, saying that they are both “anti-globalization.”

Clearly, the language used to discuss trade poorly captures its reality. The terms “free trade” and “globalization” conjure up ideas of multiculturalism and unity across borders. However, those ideas are not reflected in the actual policies that have been pursued by both major political parties over the last 30 years. Innocuous terms like “free trade” and “globalization” have become synonymous with global capitalism, a capitalism that is supported by international structures that work to greatly expand corporate power while limiting the rights of workers, consumers, and residents who are most affected by those very policies.

The debate is often framed as US corporations and US workers vs foreign corporations and foreign workers, giving the idea that a worker somehow has more in common with a corporation of their home country than with a fellow worker of another country. This allows Trump to favor corporations and pretend as though he’s favoring workers. The media seems to mostly accept this framework in its coverage of trade deals. The media also conflates global capitalism with openness and tolerance, as if the arrival of Coca-Cola in your country obviously leads to democracy.

Instead, the leftist position sees workers around the world, both in the US and abroad, sharing the same interests with each other, and being in opposition to corporate interests, whether that corporation is in the US or abroad. The dominant narrative that the far right and far left share similar positions on trade is wrong and it sorely misses the substance of the left’s critique. At its core, a leftist approach to the trade debate centers working and marginalized people in its analysis, regardless of what country they live in. The right’s pursuit to push US corporate interests at the expense of workers and the environment is in direct contrast to the left’s goals, of which protecting workers’ rights and the environment are fundamental.

Leftists understand the limitations of adopting the typical “Buy American” theme, including strategic errors both in its failure to address the problem of declining wages and working conditions, and in its more insidious implications in fueling xenophobia. If working standards are declining all over the world, products could be made in the US and still be made under sub-par working conditions. Leftists support organizing and pushing standards up for workers all over the world, as a means to improve conditions everywhere, including the US. As for what Trump wants for workers, when he announced plans to renegotiate NAFTA during his “Made in America” week this past July, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen went on Democracy Now to point out that what little we know of the re-negotiations is so vague as to be impossible to tell what it would actually mean for workers and the environment.

The leftist analysis sees that those with power at the top are breaking down borders for the purpose of more aggressively exploiting the people, land, and resources around the world, not for any interest in lofty multicultural goals. Money, goods, and intellectual property flow freely across borders, while the people at the whim of such corporate power face increasing restrictions in their movement, facing resistance in the form of both restrictive laws and the rise in xenophobic violence.

Leftists seek to go to the roots of the problem by critiquing the political and economic structures that work to further enrich a tiny ruling elite at the expense of everyone else. A leftist approach that prioritizes people at the grassroots level requires building an international working-class movement in which working and oppressed people across all countries challenge corporate power everywhere.


Stephanie Basile is a union organizer who lives in Washington, DC.

  • Aquifer

    I think the “left” and the “right” could find a lot more in common if the “left” could re-frame the way it presents this …

    If the “left” understood that all those trade deals especially those made in the ’90s, were quite pointedly about breaking the back of organized labor in the US – when our trade policies were explicitly “protectionist” of US manufacturing, with tariffs and quotas placed on imports, companies that wanted to sell in the US basically needed to “make” in the US, i.e. with domestic labor, – that labor was the leverage over the companies that “Labor” had, domestic labor was “protected” – when “protectionist” policies were dropped – companies were free to outsource their labor needs to countries with cheaper labor (and lax environmental and safety regs) and have basically unfettered access to US markets – the result was clear and obvious – companies no longer needed US labor and left in droves (I think labor made a big mistake when it had leverage, in bargaining for higher wages, bennies, etc instead of an ownership stake in the companies).

    These trade deals were simultaneously used to destroy domestic, especially agricultural, sectors in other countries when those countries’ import barriers were reciprocally to be dropped as well – folks tend to forget that one of those trade rounds (was it Doha?) broke down because other countries balked at the prospect of dropping “protection” for their agricultural sectors …. In other words these trade deals hurt domestic workers in many sectors in all countries …

    The “selling” point was that this would “open up” markets to “export” to – it was a divide and conquer strategy – workers in “export” oriented businesses were told this would make them more “competitive” in international markets … And it would make imported goods “cheaper” in the US – and that is one thing it seems Americans always want – the cheapest goods they can get … So basically Americans went along with this – somehow failing to notice, until recently, that this quest for cheaper goods was being pursued at the cost of the “jobs” they needed to – pay for these goods (this always amazes me …) a race to the bottom …

    The left also seems to have failed to have noticed that their quest for better conditions for “the workers of the world” cannot be achieved until those workers, in each sovereign nation, fight for protection in each of their own domestic markets – there are no universal standards for minimal worker protections and the idea they can or will be achieved through such “international trade deals” is another one of those fantasies that never ceases to amaze me – if workers want to help workers in other countries, it seems to me they need to help them to fight for, not dismantle, “protectionism” in each of those countries as well … I would suggest that folks read Ha-Joon Chang’s “Bad Samaritan” – the hallmark if building and maintaining any domestic industry based economy in any country is “protecting” that domestic industry from “foreign” competition …

    But the left seems to have bought that “protectionism = isolationism” bit as well – which would, for a group that aims for “solidarity” across national lines, seem to indicate that “protectionism” ought to be eschewed ….

    So, the “Made in America” is a good slogan for workers in America, just as the “Made in the China” or “Made in Indonesia” or etc. etc – is a good slogan for each of those countries respective workers … what this means that stuff may indeed be more expensive, and considering how far we have gone in dismantling our industry, means that a) we will have to tighten our belts, and b) we will need subsidies that are specifically aimed at shoring up our domestic industry – contingent upon that industry being “Made in America”

    There are many other advantages as well which can utilize such slogans as “national security” (a joke i make is “How secure can a country be that doesn’t even make its own underwear anymore?”)

    We can come together on this – we need to – and once we begin to unpack old slogans we will discover that, yeah – we ARE all in this together …

  • Harriet Heywood

    You go Stephanie!

  • DHFabian

    One year ago, middle class liberals were attaching “bold progressive” buttons to “Bill and Hillary’s” lapels. Bill Clinton stuck us with NAFTA, and before launching her campaign, Hillary Clinton was working hard to get the TPP through Congress.

    History will note the Clintons as the force that divided and conquered the Dem voting base, pitting us against each other by class and race.

  • DHFabian

    The only indication of a US left at this point is in what some refer to as “the labor left.” They only stand for improving the wages and working conditions of middle class workers, within our capitalist system. If the US had a left of any size, they would have been shining a spotlight on our poverty crisis as proof of the failures of our deregulated capitalism.

  • Tommy Boy

    Thank you. Not sure how Big Labor came to dis-believe in Protectionism. The old UAW protected our work in the closed shop. They used our strength to help unionize everyone at home and abroad. The new and corporatist uaw changed all that in the 1970s, signing up for labor/management anti-worker scams in the 1970s. By the 80s this fake uaw was sending its agents on the road to whipsaw and close our plants and locals. By the 90s they were attacking Mexican Ford workers who were being mass-fired, beaten, shot and killed by Ford for the terrible crime of organizing a democratic, fighting union. The “Labor Left” sucked its way into the AFL-CIA, uaw, iam, ufcw, etc. where it’s lead role was identifying and attacking honest trade unionists in our locals.